Last week when it came time to finally nail down my top 10 albums of the year (so far) — a labor of love — I was a bit stunned to find the smart playlist I’d built had ballooned to a dizzying 372 albums and EPs. Jesus Marimba. And while you might be asking yourself, “how in the name of all things large and small is this even possible?” I might just say, “it’s what I do.”
But more interesting than the 372 itself as… well… a jaw-dropping sum, is what it represents. About 99% of the music I’ve listened to so far was downloaded, not acquired as a physical product, i.e. CD, vinyl, tape. And about 80% of it was free or “pay what you want”, released directly through the artist or posted on music blogs, with the majority of that being EPs or singles.
Now, I won’t go into the significance of what that might mean to the music industry *cough-deathknell-cough*, but I will point out how it’s contributed to the discovery of new artists and my ability track their careers.
This list, if nothing else, owes a great deal to that last fact. Over the last few years, about two thirds of the artists on this list first came to my attention in the form of either a posted single or EP. Which is cool, because, make no mistake, making the leap from from a promising EP or single to a great album is no easy feat.
And while I’d love to include the many EPs and singles that have grabbed my attention so far this year (another list for another time perhaps), I’m going to forgo that impulse, remain traditional, and give you instead my top 10 albums… an artform — I suspect — that’s becoming less relevant by the month.
The times they are a changn’.
The list (in alphabetical order):
Avi Buffalo Avi Buffalo
In spite of the group’s age — which comes across in the “spirited” lyrics (and which I otherwise wouldn’t mention) — there’s a knack for songwriting here that transcends precociousness and veers into downright gifted savant territory. In other words, these kids have the goods. Jangly and raw in the best of possible California ways, this self-titled debut, feels good going in, and equally as good hanging around.
Beach House Teen Dream
Dream-Pop, for good or for bad (for me, at least), is a genre best taken in a heightened state. This may seem like contradictory advice, but to truly appreciate the sugary, fuzzed out, languorous sonics you want to be wide awake. That said, it’s the sleepy quality of the music, that gives it its mojo … and Teen Dream is no exception. Tighter and more focused than previous Beach House releases, this feels more like a re-occurring dream than one that will quickly fade as the morning unfolds into the subsequent hours.
Last year’s wonder of an EP, Ayrton Senna, was no fluke; it was an auspicious introduction of things to come. Subiza is every bit as infectious as its predecessor, but with a broader palette. This is a house music valentine, filtered through a modern-indie dance aesthetic; keys climb, beats pound, surprises happen and the soul feels happy.
The Drums The Drums
In the same way that The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psycho Candy took the whole Beach Boys meets Phil Spector thing to ridiculous but satisfying distorted extremes, so do The Drums take the synthpop ‡ la beach pop fusion to their own satisfying ends. Like no other record this year, this LP screams summer. Which is good considering summer’s basically just begun (hey, I’m on the coast of California, what can I say). And while some of that’s due to the lingering vapor trail of the infectious single “Let’s Go Surfing” (included on the album), I’d say most of its due to the melodic bubblegum instincts the band so effortlessly lays down.
Gil Scott Heron I’m New Here
Arguably one of the most important/poignant political-musical documentarians of the 70s and early 80s, Heron’s free jazz baritone, spoke truth to power where few were as successful or poetic. I’m New Here, his first record in 16 years, is a surprise of sorts, given all the record is and is not. What could’ve been a referendum on all that’s passed in the last decade or so, is instead a naked look inward, and feels like the perfect way to go. Sharp, direct, moving, this is a stunning, thought-provoking piece of music.
Hot Chip One Life Stand
It would be a shame — almost tragic, really — if the LP with my favorite song of the year (by far), “Take It In”, with a chorus so anthemic and beautiful you need to take care your heart doesn’t explode, lacked the meat to make it in my top 10. Fortunately, this isn’t a case. Instead, Hot Chip have delivered their best — and dare I say — most satisfying record to date.
Jumping off and running with the exuberance that made the leftfield pop opener “Gobbledygook” off Sigur Ros’ last album so exciting, Go — as the title would seem to suggest — is about movement. Which isn’t to say it’s a record about going from point A to point B, but rather about ignition — that bursting out of the gates moment. His falsetto, the crescendoed songwriting, the layered instruments, all feel like a mouthful of Pop Rocks and Coke. Which — when you think about it — might be the ultimate liftoff.
Magic Man Real Life Color
I always hope that somewhere amongst the 200 plus unsigned and micro-indie bands I listen to during the course of the year (or half year, as the case may be), that there’ll be at least one LP that makes me go “whoa” and prick up my ears. It seems odd, given the numbers, that it’d be so rare, but if we exclude EPs and singles (which I am — and trust me, there are some good ones… strike that, great ones), it seems to be. A strong LP — from start to finish — for a myriad of reasons, is a difficult thing to create. Which is why Real Life Color is such a joy. Is this this year’s Passion Pit? Could be. Get the album free here.
Surfer Blood Astro Coast
Here’s where you can pretty much judge a book by its cover. Let’s see… heavy, check. Surf/Summery, check. New wave/postpunk influenced… well… okay… check. Anyway, you get the point, this is a heavy guitar-based, distortion drenched, reverb informed postpunk/indie mid-January released summer record that rocks nostalgia without feeling nostalgic. Hells yeah.
The National High Violet
I’ll admit when I first heard High Violet, I was like, meh, it’s good, but definitely no Boxer. Outside of “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, with one of the most poignant lines of the year — “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe” — I was finding it difficult to latch on to any of the melodies (which is saying something given Matt Berninger’s instincts in this regard). But here’s the thing, it began to grow on me. And after seeing the majority of the LP performed live, it’s depth and sonic emotion made complete sense. Sure, it’s the same melancholic stuff of previous records, but what’s a little co-misery amongst friends.
Trentem0ller Into the Great Wide Yonder, The Radio Dept. Clinging to a Scheme, Broken Social Scene Forgiveness Rock Record, Toro y Moi Causes of This, Janelle Monae ArchAndroidl, Dinosaur Feathers Fantasy Memorial, Marching Band Pop Cycle, Owen Pallett Heartland